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How to work from home without going insane (purple monkey dishwasher) (davidtate.org)
343 points by tate 2054 days ago | hide | past | web | 99 comments | favorite



I've worked from my home office for the past few years, and I've figured out it's the ideal solution for my work pattern.

I have a good work ethic, and stay very productive (better than when I'm in a client's offices.) And IM is a life-saver with the teams I'm on.

The biggest challenge to transitioning to WFH was not the kids. They respect my office as a workspace and really go out of their way not to interrupt me.

No, the biggest challenge was my wife. It took over a year -- a YEAR -- for her to recognize that I was working. For the longest time, I was "playing on my computer" or "surfing the Internet" or whatever the daily description might entail.

One day, she emotionally finally reached a conclusion: "I simply cannot count on you as being available to take care of things here at home while you're working." Bingo!

And that was the crux of it -- working at home didn't mean working while living life at home, it meant physically working from home. I explained how I was mentally at work, and not at home. As soon as she accepted the fact that I was earning a living while still being in our home, everything fell into place.


It took my husband a while to catch on to this, too, though he really was trying. He works 3 days a week (not that he works less, just that he does it all in 3 days). He's always respected the work I do, but it took him a while to adjust to the fact that I couldn't just rearrange my schedule at the drop of a hat to take the day off to go somewhere or go out to lunch or something.

I'm not so busy that I don't stop to eat lunch, so we would still go out on days where I didn't have quite so much to do and could afford the extra hour or so that eating somewhere other than my dining room requires, but then he would do things like remember he needed to stop somewhere else and could we just do that while we're out so he doesn't have to drive all the way back into town? (We live in a fairly rural area) So a trip out for lunch would turn into lunch, grocery store, his business (he owns a store here in town), bank, etc. and suddenly the hour and a half I'd planned to take off had turned into three or four.

I can't say I blame him. I enjoy spending the time with him and it's nice to get out and do some things together during the day while the kid's in school, but it just isn't practical most days. Now we very clearly plan what we're going to do when we go out on the days I'm working and he's not.


I've gone through that from the opposite perspective. My SO works from home and sometimes when I'd have a sick day, or a public holiday or whatever I'd wander into the study and have a chat, or pop my head in to offer a cup of tea or something. To me she would seem kind of standoffish or dismissive. It took me quite a long time to wrap my head around the fact that she wasn't being rude or ignoring me, she was working.

Funny how the brain works. I obviously knew it, intellectually, but I would still get a bit bummed out or wonder if she was mad at me or whatever when she'd sit in the house "just being on the computer" for 7 hours and not talk to me. Especially when I wouldn't normally be home, I'd be looking forward to spending a bit more time together. Sometimes I'd give her a hug or something and it took a while for her to mention "look, it's not that I don't like you, it's just like how you would feel if I turned up in your office and gave you a cuddle while you were in the middle of doing something - my brain is in full work mode, it can't instantly switch to affection mode". This reversal of opinion - imagining having my SO around my office wanting to hang out and chat and have coffee and how distracting and kind of irritating it would be - is when it finally clicked for me.

Of course now I feel foolish for ever thinking that way, and all's well. But I sympathise with your wife!


I'm currently going through this right now. My SO even went as far as to announce that "we can get a dog now because you are home to take care of it!" I would go grocery shopping during the day, pick up the mail, wash dishes, do laundry, etc, during my coding breaks while self-employed.

Now?

I leave the dishes in the sink, leave the mail in the mailbox, don't pick up the random stuff laying on the floor, etc. The result is that my SO comes home and there are a bunch of unresolved physical tasks that need to be done. It looks as though I had been at an office doing work and also just came home.

Kind of odd psychology going on, but it works for me right now.


Same here. When I was working out of the house, I would frequently say to my SO: "Pretend I'm at work."

I wish it was something I addressed better up front.

For others, keep in mind that it's a two-way street. If you want your SO to give you space to be 'at work', then it is important for you to stay in work mode on a predictable schedule.


I had the same problem with my girlfriend. We used to work together then I quit to work for myself. Whenever she had a day off she thought I was just playing on the computer too and just couldn't wrap her mind around the idea that despite the fact that I worked from home, I had to get x, y, and z done before I could go out to dinner or lunch or whatever. Its almost a year now and she left me which sucks but as a twenty-something trying to make it in this economy I have to say my business comes first, at least until I've made the progress I set out to make.

These tips were very good and I've found them to be very true though it can be a challenge to implement them even if you know you should.

Those who work from home should heed my warning: it's not just wives and girlfriends who won't get you're actually working, pretty much everyone else will take a while to get that you're working, not living some awesome fantasy life where you do whatever you want, whenever you want and your bank account just fills with magic funds.


The perceived "you're just playing around on the computer" attitude from people is annoying though. We have friends where the dad works at home too, in sales, and doesn't really need to work a full day, as long as he makes his calls and meets his quotas. As a developer, our work is never done and so I work a full day, and yet I'm "always working" as if that's a bad thing. Even though without 2 hours of commuting I'm usually there for breakfast, lunch and dinner where I rarely had those with my family when I worked in the office.


Pure projection. Useless people accomplish nothing on the computer and our first approximation of other people is ourselves.


> our first approximation of other people is ourselves

This is an excellent quote. It says things about humanity that I haven't been able to put to such succinct form before. Thank you.


Bingo! You summed up humanity in 1 sentence.


For me it's the opposite. Home life comes first, and work is a secondary thing. If my wife needs some help, or the kids want me to play with them on the wii, I usually do. If there's an 'emergency' at work, say a server has blown up or something, then sure, I lock myself away for a bit until it's fixed.

Work will still be there when they're in bed.

I'm not suggesting that either way is right, but just that those are my priorities and they work for me.

Also it may have some to do with my own ways of working - I intersperse work with playing games, browsing the net, doing DIY, playing games with kids, walking the dog etc. I don't have any "work" or "non work" times really (Or an office - I usually work on the sofa in the living room). When I get stuck on work I might play a game on the Wii, and solve the problem while I'm racing round a mario cart track. It works for me, but quite possibly not others...


Yeah, finding the balance takes skill as well. When I enter my office, I'm in work mode. When I step out, I'm in home mode. Very important to keep that consistent, for everyone involved. My office may mean work, but I take pains to ensure that I don't impose on the household.

I work on different projects for various clients, so my time demands aren't always consistent but I often need to stay heads-down for extended times.

Very cool your time commitments permit you to jump in/out. My output would suffer, and I need the isolation to focus, so that environment wouldn't work well for me. But that's the key -- finding how it works for one's self and family is the correct answer, though results may vary from person to person.


That's great as long as the money is coming in. It's when it's not coming in that my priorities shift, and that causes strain on everything.


That sounds ideal but then how many hours in a day do you think you're working? sleeping? I'm not saying you need to reach some optimal number but don't you miss having a bit more structure?


Been working from home for two years solidly now. A lot of what's in this article is true. I used to have whole days when I don't leave my chair, let alone the house. Now I make an effort to at least walk around the block before work.

The points about planning are very well made; it's vital to keep yourself aware of what you're doing.

But you do need to work hard at not losing it. I've lost days to multiplayer 8 ball pool on miniclip (I'm like a sniper on that thing). Right now I've been wearing these clothes all week (but I did have a shower yesterday!). It's difficult when there are other people around - my wife used to get in from work at 5 and start chatting to me and I had to continually remind her that I don't finish till 5.30. I miss fresh air, and I miss talking to people, even though I'm something of a recluse.

It can be hugely fun though! You get a massive amount of control over your workflow, and you get as big a desk as you can fit in your room. Right now I have a shelf unit filled with toy robots in front of me! I voice-skype with my boss almost every day, and we chat on skype all the time. I don't have to worry about taking a few minutes off to pop to the post office or whatever. I save time by not having any traveling time, and I get to make the joke that I walk to work every day!

So in terms of the effects on you personally, yes it can be depressing, but it can also be fun, especially if you manage yourself.

In terms of how it affects your work, we have found that we miss the little 'pondering' conversations by the proverbial water cooler. If I have a problem I'm working on and it gets too much and I want to take a break, I sit at my desk, at home, either tweeting or just thinking to myself. If was at work I might wander over to my boss's desk and start chatting about that product idea we had last week, so it's worth trying to build in some mechanisms to replace those kind of chats between you and your co-workers.


I have been doing this for almost 3 years now and I surely agree that work from home is at the same time the best and worst in the world.

Its very nice because, as you said, you control everything. However it is also very bad because you do not have enough contact with other humans.

And I'm not saying this because there no one to chit-chat, but because there is no one to talk about work. As a developer, getting input from others, even if they tell you that what you are doing sucks or does not worth it, is very important because a) In case they say bad things it can help you improve it and b) If they are wrong, it reassures you of what you are doing, giving you confidence. When you do not have anyone to share work with, you can get stuck for hours even if you are writing the best code of your life.

Regarding interruptions I think I learned how to deal with them. I try not to fight myself so if I want to go watch some series or do some other stuff, I just do it. When I need to deliver something my brain naturally does not make me want do other stuff than work so I gave up trying to control this. Instead I use the energy that I get from not fighting my body in work when I really need to do it.


Well stated. I tend to look at it in a similar way, but phrased differently: When you decide to work from home vs. in an office, neither is better or worse, you're simply trading one set of problems for another.

For example, you brought up lack of human contact, and I sympathize. Team interaction was huge for me when I worked in an office, and I didn't realize how much I took it for granted until I started working from home. When you trade that for the solitude and separation that comes with working from home, things get lonely fast. However, when I really need to get work done, the solitude is a huge net positive.

I've experienced many other this-for-that trade offs, but the social loss is one that I identify with the most. I think software developers have a stereotype of sitting in front of a computer and writing code all day, mostly in isolation. That may be true to a varying degree, but I think the social aspects of software development are underrated, and working from home has helped me realize that.


I think this is the key. I tried almost all work models (partially remote, full remote, office work and so on) and found that each of then has pros and cons and the secret is to find which one offers you the most pain solvers and which offers the problems you can live with.

Personally I find much more value in not being disturbed all the time and avoid the harassment that work in an office can bring to your life. On the other side, even if it´s harder to do tech work on my own I think I prefer this to having to waste time commuting and get caught in middle of unproductive conversations all the time.


I completely agree with the human aspect. That's why I'm going to go to a coworking space not to work every day at home/the coffee shop :-)


I've personally found that I do not enjoy working from home. I think he hits the nail on the head with the "Crippling Depression" part. As a software engineer, I do my best work alone, in my head, but I need real-life interaction with my team for my work to feel meaningful.


I notice that most of the people in this thread talking about how they do successfully work from home talk about their wives and children.

Living alone and working alone sounds like a recipe for insanity. You've gotta have some time with other people, regardless of how much of an introvert you may be.


I've worked at home and lived alone for the past 5 years or so. I was still in college until a year and a half ago, so the lectures provided some socialization back then.

I don't think I've gone insane quite yet ;) Lots of IM and regularly making excuses to go be around people (meetup groups, running errands, working somewhere with people for a while) seems to be working for now.


not as bad as working at home and living with bad roommates. I stopped leaving my room, it made me a total agoraphobic.


Ditto, last year I worked from home for a few weeks a couple of times and it made my pre-existing depression measurably worse. As much as I like to work in my own head, it's going to be a long time before I could ever actually work alone again.


I don't do well working from home. I love the freedom that it provides, but that freedom is a double-edged sword. I'm definitely one with a 25 minute focus limit and the time between those good focus sessions tends to last a little too long.

I've also found that when working from home, I crave that social interaction. I'm in the creative business and some of the best ideas I've ever had have come through collaboration with coworkers.

I love the idea of working from home. I just don't know if it will ever work for me.


Personally, I think the depression is just a side effect of dealing with how society moulds you to work in an office. I have worked full time in an office twice, and I went through depression (unofficially, as I don't want anything to do with those drugs) for several months after leaving.

Offices desensitize employees to lots of distractions, which seem to become addictive: phones ringing non-stop, colleagues interrupting, clients visiting, random music playing in the background, fitting in with certain rules etc. The silence of working from home is refreshing at first, but then the dark clouds kick in and you start to adapt. Exercise is the best cure to depression.


Yes, this is true. Sometimes you need to see emotional feedback to your work in order for it to feel worthwhile. Just sitting at a computer ticking things off a todo list and occasionally pushing things to source control doesn't provide much satisfaction.


In the past I've succeeded in offsetting this (and staying connected with the team) by going into the office 1-2 days a week, and working from home the rest. I found it was a nice balance of autonomy and socialization.


Same here. I worked from home for a year and was going to go insane! It was a great feeling yet still very depressing. It doesn't help that I am single and live alone either though.


I recommend Sococo. I work for Sococo, but I use it too. Work from home, interact with people in WA, CA, AZ, MN - they're just over the virtual cubicle wall.


I've been working from home for about 6 months now, and relate to a lot of what's in this article. The scheduling can be super tough - it's way to easy to get distracted on the internet and blow an entire morning doing absolutely nothing.

Overall, the thing that I think has kept me both productive and sane is working hard to have external passions. For me, it's outdoor sports like rock climbing and mountain biking, and if you just decide that you're going to get out for a few hours every day and do some non-work thing that you love, then you have a justification for being productive during the portion of the day that you are actually working. I also find that doing these sports brings me into contact with other people beyond my girlfriend and house mate, which is definitely a very appreciated bonus after being cooped up in the house by yourself for so many hours a week.


Yes for sure, try and at least get lunch with someone a few times a week and have a hobby of somekind.

Working from home can absolutely destroy your social skills, especially if you end up working at weird hours. When you do go and meet people you can sometimes realise that you have absolutely nothing interesting to talk about because all you have done for the last month is sit in your house in front of your computer either working or trying to work.


Just like moving out of your parents house, working from home is a big step towards autonomy. Less externally imposed structures and rules, and people to keep you (un)focused means you need to create your own system that works for your personality, goals and context. Definitely something to get used to.

Monthly/weekly/daily goals across some main areas of work (planning, production, strategy, promotion, etc) has been a super big help for me.

The biggest help for me is to have very specific overall goals to achieve. Being laser-focused on those makes a big difference towards making the small decisions that take you forward and keep you focused.


I've been working from hotels in Europe and Asia for almost a year now. The freedom is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. The best days are those when I somehow manage to write something in a day that would have taken me weeks of wading through office politics. The worst days are those when I feel like I haven't accomplished anything and can't stop thinking that nobody's holding a paycheck out for me at the end of the month.


working from hotels for a year? wow, i'm impressed. I did travel/work for 5 months this year (Southeast Asia), and welcomed very much to stay at an apartment for 1 month (in Vietnam).

Don't you feel lonely/unmotivated to do it that way? IMO hotels are not very conducive for creativity, and the quest to find a connection every day was a bit tiring at times. Something I missed was not getting to know other people doing the same thing. I could not imagine doing it on the long term.

On the other hand, it's great to just be able to do that and work from a totally different country for some time, and doing a bit of travelling :-) I just imagined it could be a sustainable lifestyle for me, but it was not.


I did rent a house in Nha Trang for five months, so I haven't been in hotels the whole time. I don't think I can do this forever either but it's been fun.


i did the same for 10months. i basically move from city to city (different areas if it's a big city) every few weeks. If you stay at one place for 2-3 weeks you quickly learn where there's wifi.

Staying at serviced appartment type of places makes you feel like home (a kitchen in your hotel room has a lot of value even though you never use it. but you could).

It helps if you're not the most talkative person.


a kitchen in your hotel room has a lot of value even though you never use it

I couldn't believe how much being able to make my own cup of tea in the morning makes a place feel more like home.


Congratulations, we're many that are jealous. :-)

(If the girlfriend gets a sudden attack of sanity and dumps me, I'll try to organise living in Japan for a few years.)


Well, it remains to be seen if this is going to be a sustainable thing, so don't get jealous just yet.

Japan would be great. I'll head there too if things go well enough that I can afford it. I'm on more of a Vietnam budget at the moment.


Sorry for coming in late -- I have bad nut/peanut allergies. I don't have much choice in Asia I think, but to go to Japan. :-)

Not that I mind, lovely and interesting place.


Check out http://bravenewtraveler.com and http://worldhum.com, two of my favorite vicarious travel sites.


I've been working from home for the past 2 years. It's always funny how friends say "you're so lucky you get to work from home while I have to go to work". Truth is, most would never be able to make it through the 'work at home' life because they would become so distracted and bored with the freedom that it gives you. The one thing that keeps me on task is this: Exercise. I usually work anywhere from 10am-530pm, then I get up and go to the gym for 1.5 hours. I'll then come home, eat dinner, shower, and relax on the couch while casually working. If you work from home, be sure to get out every once in a while or you're going to quickly hate it.


Working from home in a foreign country for two years now. Biggest takeaways:

- Working from home on my own projects is much more fulfilling than working on someone else's.

- No matter how much money you earn, most people assume that people working from are barely scraping by, or somehow non-ambitious.


I work from home mainly and the freedom is a big plus as well as the saved money on commutes.

If anyone else is thinking of doing this though I would recommend making sure you have a room somewhere that you can use almost exclusively for work.

I live in a small house and share with people who are unemployed and since my bedroom is not big enough to fit a desk and a computer I end up having to work in what is basically a communal area of the house and also on the path to the kitchen.

We have a sort of agreement that they will try and give me some space but having people walking to and fro behind me whenever they need to get to the kitchen or coming through 'just to quickly ask me something' is cancer to productivity since they will always interrupt you when your in 'the zone', they don't really understand that 10 seconds of disturbance probably costs me 20 minutes of work on average.

This can also put stresses on your personal relationships since it's easy to be pretty short with people when they disturb you.


I have a dog, which is great. Dogs are pretty good company, and it forces you to go for walks every 4 hours or so.


I have to agree. Though interrupting what you're doing and dragging yourself outside can sometimes feel bad, when you get back in again your head is usually much clearer and you're much more productive then if you just stayed indoors.

I've also found that the small conversations with fellow dog-owners you meet on the walks can substitute a little for the water cooler interactions in a normal work place.


Bicycles and living close to a trail loop are also good too. Fortunately my work is right beside a 25 minute loop. :)


I'm 4 months into my second working from home experience. First time I was in a room on the main floor with french doors right by the front door and in constant view of wife and kids. This time I'm in a basement, out of view, so that's helped maintain separation.

If you have kids, I came up with "Ticket Time" to help assuage the guilt over not hanging out with your kids while working and give them something to look forward to so they don't wander downstairs on a whim. It works best in the summer when they're not in school.

The kids get a playing card in the morning and they can use it to come down and spend 5 minutes with me. We'll throw or kick a ball around, play a quick game of UNO or something like that. They love it and its fun for me to have some time with them that I wouldn't have in the office.


I've found that being in IRC with teammates and attending meetings using a video conference solution are key components to my mental health while working from home.

I work on the east coast for a west coast company, and that means that scheduling is a constant problem for me. Some people in the office are most productive in the last couple of hours of the core work day (i.e. 3 to 5) and that is tough for me because I'm trying to have dinner with my family and get kids ready for bed.

The wife and kids all understand that when I am in my office I am "at work" and interruptions are considered just as if they were asking me to take time from the office and come back home.

The biggest challenge for me when I was shifting into this method of work is the fact that work is always just a few steps away. When you are passionate about your work and job, your brain doesn't stop working just because you aren't at your desk anymore. When a great idea comes to you or you remember something that you really need to schedule or write down, it is very easy to say, "I'll be right back" and suddenly lose an hour or two of your free time. I won't say I have conquered this challenge yet (my wife would scoff so loud I think HN might actually pick it up and post it as a reply), but being aware of it is the critical part. When you are about to say, "I'll be right back", think about what the ramifications would be if you were gone for over an hour.


I love working from home, I'm only in the office one week out of every 3 the rest of the time I'm at home working. My fellow employees and I actually find ways we can work from home when we're 'suppose' to be in the office.

I love being able to use my own equipment, being comfortable, not being interrupted by the constant office noises and being able to do whatever I want. Plus the time saved on not having to commute I can work overtime and make more money.

In the office I have to use their desk, their chair, their shitty monitor. At home I can use all my own equipment, everything is there and everything works. I can take breaks at my leisure and because I'm more productive I can play games, or watch some TV, or go out for a 20 minute walk.

I also save 4 hours a day on commuting while working from home. Time which can then be spent either working extra, for more money, doing things around my apartment, hanging out with my wife.

After 3 1/2 years of working from home my wife doesn't bother me, or at the very least, she knows when I can be bothered. It's about setting boundaries. I also work with a partner who's also working at home who I can talk to and get assistance from.

I'm sure it all depends on what kind of job you are doing, I provide tech support to customers all around the world. Somedays it can be really busy and some days it can be extremely slow.


A piece of advice that works for me - when you can, change things up by changing your workplace. Once or twice a week, grab your laptop and go working somewhere outside your normal, work environment (like library or college campus) and work from there. Even if you stay as little as few hours, youll be amazed at how refreshing that is and how your creativity and productivity will increase.


It is interesting...I had never heard of the Pomodoro technique but independently developed a method in which each "work unit" is: 25 minutes. I wonder how many others have also concluded that 25 minutes is short enough not to be scary (if you have to force yourself to do it) but long enough to get something done.


For me 25 minutes are too short - you just get into something and it's time for the pause - especially for programming I think you need longer time periods.

When doing the pomodoro technique I usually go for 45 minutes work units + 10 minutes break. That way you get longer focus and when you take a break it's a real break (so you can get out and walk for a bit for example).


Well, you can simply do 2 pomodoros without having the break.


It really works for me and for my friends. And you are right, it's hard to conclude a "pomodoro" without any distractions, in this case you need some "tool" to help you. We use http://orkanizer.com platform. Ciao!


Works for most tasks, but recently I had to get my head inside 100 modules of crap (some open source stuff). Takes me several hours straight to 'get it'. Was very hard to find several hours in a row, working from home.


there is pomodoro technique RPG game which makes it even more interesting :)

trying it now, getting gold for completed pomodoros ...


Purple Monkey Dishwasher!!!! I've said these words to the most die-hard Simpson fans and they look at me like I'm from outer-space! It's my favourite line, but this is the first time I've ever seen anyone quote it besides myself.

Sorry, I realize this doesn't really advance the discussion.


I've worked from home since 2003. I really enjoy it, especially now that I have a little girl.

Unfortunately, the added focus you get from working in an office is lost to possibility of being able to do anything anytime. And what's bad about that, is that you tell yourself on certain tasks that "you can do it anytime, and I'll just post to HN now".

An ordered todo list is the most important tool you have when working from home.

Also, a gratuitous link to an image of my home office http://bit.ly/sItzcW


I've done the same. Been at home since 2001 and now I'm even using a mini white board to create a list of things to do before 2pm. Some of those things are on the master to-do list, others are just the things off the top of my head, but if I set a mid-day deadline, there's hope that all will get finished.


I got myself a magnetic whiteboard and some magnetic A4 sheets that I cut into strips. Each one has a to-do on it so I can change the order / move them around easily.

I like the idea of doing the tasks before 2pm. Might try that.


In case anyone is wondering why the words "Purple monkey dishwasher" is in the title, it's apparently from The Simpsons:

Bart: [walking up] Now for Operation Strike-Make-Go-Longer. [to teacher] You know, I heard Skinner say the teachers will crack any minute.

[the teachers whisper it forward through the line]

Teacher: [to Edna] Skinner said the teachers will crack any minute purple monkey dishwasher.

Edna: Well! We'll show him, especially for that "purple monkey dishwasher" remark.

[everyone shouts their assent]


I have worked from home since early this year, and it has definitely been up and down for me. I can relate to the author with the wife and kids situation, but I have learned to cope with that pretty well. My wife generally respects my space and the kids are getting better. One downside to being home all the time is that my kids think I work all the time now, even tho I am always around. Out of sight, out of mind.

For me the social piece was the hardest part. Luckily for me there are a couple of co-working places that I hit up once or twice a week. I try to schedule coffee or lunch as much as possible with people I know, and don't know. I also do the occasional coffee shop session, but I can't stay there too long b/c their chairs usually suck.

So I would recommend that people try to network more. Get out of the house. Go do some co-working. You will find that you are not alone on an island, and that really helps.


I work from home now, I could go take a walk - right now! I work from home now, I could ride a bike - right now!

Then freaking do it and return to your work with new vigor.

Stop feeling guilty about it. This always makes you more productive. If you were stuck in a cube you'd just be miserable and reading reddit anyway, or you'd walk around the campus. No different.


Yay for the mention of the Pomodoro Method, it is quite effective and has gotten me through college.

Your reasoning however for learning to be interrupted in our life, is something I am not necesarily sure about. Are humans just simply bad at long stretches of focus? I am not sure but i am and thats why I use the pomodoro.


Are humans just simply bad at long stretches of focus?

This is a great question. I think the answer is: It depends on what you mean by focus.

Humans are certainly capable of long periods of concentration, of all sorts. Sitting in a tree waiting for the prey to come into range. Sitting under the tree patiently digging out edible roots. Sitting in a band jamming for twelve hours straight. Sitting facing the wall in Zen meditation.

But, in programming, the word focus has a specific and somewhat paradoxical meaning. When we are focused on programming it feels as if we are focused on something. And yet when you think about what you're actually doing in programming the word focus seems less and less appropriate.

Here's programming: You think about the feature you want to build, and then you think about the existing system that you want to attach it to, and then you think about the big picture, and then you think about an individual data structure. And then you sketch the module on a whiteboard, and then you write an empty module file, and then you use a C debugger to find and fix a bug in the module loader, and then you patiently write an editor macro to change a giant text file from XML to JSON, and then you write a unit test for the JSON parser. Then you write the parser. Then you stare at the parser and try to imagine explaining it to a junior PHP developer. And then you sigh and mentally kick yourself for overdesigning and quickly reimplement the parser, except without the tricky metaclass and the tail recursion and the nifty hack that reads like obfuscated Perl, and then you sigh again and get some coffee. And then you find the module loader is still broken after all and you do ten minutes of research into alternative module loaders, during which you realize that maybe you should have used an entirely different framework for this system and make a note to research the alternative framework for your next system.

And this is what programmers call "focus": Bouncing up and down among five or six layers of abstraction, hopefully doing no individual task for longer than five minutes at a time. (After all, this is programming: If you've got an hour of rote typing to do, why isn't there a macro that can do it for you?) But you're focused on something, because the hours are flying by and if someone interrupts you, you tend to want to throw things at them.

And perhaps this is why we programmers have such trouble with focus: The state we call "incredibly productive focus" is actually oddly difficult to distinguish from ADD. But it's focused ADD, and that's the secret.


The Pomodoro Method seems to consist of setting yourself up to be interrupted every 25 minutes, and picking a task that can fit. This is great if you're busy learning something, since studying in well-defined chunks with time in-between will aid retention. It's murder if you're doing work that involves flow and a complex mental state, like programming, since it can easily take 20 minutes to get into a fully productive state of flow.


I use a mechanical timer and I use the pomodoro method for routine tasks like marking, doing reports &c (I'm a teacher). It helps my motivation with fairly basic tasks.

For anything where flow might be important, I don't use the pomodoro and I block out a stretch of time. I work on those tasks at home as a large open plan office becomes impossible.


I have experimented with Pomodoro, but for me it was actually more because I thought it might be a good way for me to remember to take breaks. I don't usually have the problem of not being able to sustain focus for long periods. Sometimes I do but more often than not, my problem is forgetting to take breaks, a habbit which - as I get older - I'm finding my body less forgiving of.

Whenever I read about people having trouble maintaining focus or I see people around me with the same issue, I wonder what it is about my life experience that may have made the difference. There's a few things that spring out to me:

  1. I was introduced to meditation at a young age
  2. I spent a lot of my youth playing pen and paper based RPGs
  3. I spent a lot of my youth reading novels when I wasn't playing pen and paper RPGs
  4. I spent a lot of my youth painting miniatures for table-top war games and playing said war games when I wasn't reading or playing pen and paper RPGs
A common thread I can see through all these activites is that one is using one's mind, one's imagination, more so than having images and entertainment thrust at you by a monitor or TV.

I believe these activities assisted in cultivating an improved ability to focus generally, and particularly to focus on tasks that are not immediately accessible. This focus has served me well in my professional life.


How do you implement it? Paper+Timer or electronic?


I have a tool called 'messagebox' that pops up a dialog, and a script 'now' which outputs pretty-formatted current time and date; doubles as a work log:

    #!/bin/bash
    
    if [ -n "$1" ]; then
        task="$@"
    else    
        task_file=$(mktemp)
        export task_file
        rlwrap bash -c 'read -p "current task: " -r task; echo $task > $task_file'
        task="$(<$task_file)"
        rm $task_file
    fi
    
    # don't keep a handle open to current directory
    cd "$HOME"
    
    echo "$(now): $task" >> ~/.pomodoro
    
    (
        sleep 25m
        messagebox 'Pop!'
    ) &
    
    echo "25 minutes starting now"


http://e.ggtimer.com/pomodoro recently discovered that myself, i find it useful, maybe other do as well.


http://tomatoes.heroku.com/ is my preferred tool


I'm happy to hear it, just one more info about Tomatoes: it's free software and you can get its source at http://github.com/potomak/tomatoes


Without sounding completely mental, Twitter has been my work from home saviour this time around.

I worked from home a fair few years back, and by the time my housemate came home, I was bouncing off the walls with the excitement of someone to talk to. He, who had been in the office all day, just wanted to watch TV and talk to no-one.

I started working from home again earlier this year, this time with Twitter in my life. Twitter/Tweetdeck provides the perfect office banter for me. My friends chat, I join in if I want to. Industry contacts and peers discuss worky stuff - not only do I get to interact with them, but it also means I don't fall behind with what's happening.

I do still find I need to pencil 'go outside' into my diary every day, though...


Just wanted to mention one thing: it is important to train your partner to let you work. It is equally or even more important to get out of work mode at certain times. I had to realize for myself that on days where my perceived productivity wasn't great or nonexistent at all, I reacted unnecessarily harsh to requests to help at ANY given time, because you know I wasn't finished with my work, I already made dinner, so my family duties are met, etc. The thing is, we never are done, right? Letting the financial pressure of working independently combined with the stress of feeling not having achieved anything that day sip into your relationship can be very stressful to it


Btw, I've been using this app for my mac to implement the Pomodoro technique (didn't know it was called that though)

http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/breaktime/id427475982?mt=12


There's an open source Pomodoro app. It's on the (mac) app store for $1.99ish but if you search on the developer's website there's a github link where you can download the app if you want to compile it yourself.


I had the same problem and I ended up to build a simple web based pomodoro timer and time tracker called Tomatoes.

You can use it for free at http://tomatoes.heroku.com and get its source code at http://github.com/potomak/tomatoes


I work from home part time and while I appreciate having that option, I do find there are negatives. Other than missing basic human interaction, there's something to be said about the chance encounter with a co-workers in the hallway that leads to an idea or being able to pop by someone's office to discuss a problem. I also find that face-to-face communication is a higher bandwidth medium than phone/IM chat.


I'm more productive when I work from home. I am more responsive to my coworkers when I work in the office. Both of these things are valuable.

I could probably be about as productive as I am at home if I shut the door to my office. I suspect I wouldn't get much more responsive than I am at home, though.


A lot of truths in this article. Thanks for sharing, at the very least it makes me feel sane for feeling like I'm going to go insane working at home all the time. Cheers.


Why working from home is both awesome and horrible: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/working_home


How did all you people find jobs that allow you to work from home? I would love to try it, I just don't see many programmer jobs that allow this.


Stop calling yourself a programmer and looking at programmer jobs. If you're creating value for a business, by and large they'll deal with you not being in the office every day.

About half of my consulting gigs are 100% remote and every other time I turn down a full-time offer with "I'm flattered but enjoy living in Ogaki" I get told "We could totally work with that."


It doesn't seem that uncommon, if you're very good at what you do. There's a monthly HN thread for telecommute jobs and quite a few hiring ads from YC companies say they're open to it.

When I was in high school I got my first contract programming job building a CRM app for sales from the ground up. The guy I built it for was building a business around that app, selling access to businesses with small to medium sales teams...

When I finished that, I immediately thought "why did I just build all that for him, so that he can make the real money selling the app I just built, when I could have done it for myself?"... and that was the end of contract programming for me. I started building web apps of my own and work from home running them.


You just identified the problem. Create your own job and market your services -or- create your own product and sell it online.


My first time, it was part of the job (acquihire) offer, as the company was 70 miles away. I did 2 days a week in the office though. On my 2nd time working at home now. After 2 years at my current company, I wanted to move to Boulder, and asked to work remotely. They said yes.


been working from home for most of the last 22 years. This was a good post and much of it resonated. Wrote up a few "tips" and thoughts based on my experiences working at home: http://geekanddad.wordpress.com/2011/11/11/working-at-home-s...


The "please just go take a shower" hit home HARD


I've worked from home on and off for the last 10 years. The best bit for me is definitely the freedom and watching your kids grow up.

I'm currently working on the sofa, dog curled up by my feet, watching TV :) Most days I take a bath at 2pm. Rock n roll!

(Funny sketch about working from home. Don't click if you get easily offended http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=co_DNpTMKXk )


I watched that sketch with my wife and in-laws when I first started working from home... I think my silence was deafening


I love that sketch! :)

The only problem is, now I'm working from home full time, my friends accuse me of that all the time...


Well I plan to spend a lifetime working from home....Here are my ideas.

a) First and foremost....I will make it a point to go to places where I meet people....Some such places can be gym,yoga classes,bars/clubs if I am single.

b) I will travel as much as possible....How I see it,there is actually some productivity to be gained from working on your friends couch in miami for a month.

c) Be much much more efficient.The shackles of bureaucracy are not holding me back anymore.There is no reason I should not be able to produce 10 times as much than some average kid at xyz corp.10 times is actually a pretty modest goal.

d) Music,Adderall and daily exercise to increase focus.

e) Occasional mary jane sessions with stoner friends to increase creativity.

But then maybe its easier said than done!...Any comments from people who are already working from home independently?


Yes: It IS easier said than done.

The one thing that I figured out and continue to figure out is that plans are a completely different beast when self-employed, compared to your school years or regular employment. The challenge to be not just responsible for turning meaningful interest into work, but also creating that meaning in the first place might not seem that significant, but it's an extremely tough thing. Saying that you plan on being much, much more efficient is all fine and well, but what if you don't actually now what to do with all that efficiency?

Also - not to be too patronizing on your personal choices, but you already have two counts of drug use in your plans plus traveling, clubs, etc.. That doesn't really sound like a plan for working, but one for not working (there is also much /distraction/ to be gained from slouching on somebodies couch in Miami for a month). That's fine and everything and it might help you keep your balance, but you really don't have much of a plan for the actual work part.


Thanks for the advice!...I guess I do have a plan but lets see!


rule #0, never assume you can spend one weekend working on your car or bike if you work from home.

it will drag over the week for sure, and will seem way too much more fun/important than work.

my stories are from a younger me, but include:

taking the engine of a motorcycle (a vintage honda trail) out to take it to a shop to redo some threads and get rid of an oil leak... ended up dismantling the entire bike to re-paint it.

taking one sunday to fix the horn of a car (a vintage bmw e34)... ended up dismantling the dashboard and rear firewall of engine compartment to fix/clean all the A/C components

bought an old bicycle on craigslist (bike had some 12yr) to get in shape while biking to work... ended up dismantling the whole thing and restoring it to brand new state. I even opened up the derailleurs and freewheel to properly restore it with original components.


I highly recommend working at a shared office such as Nextspace. I worked at the SF office of Nextspace for 3 months to improve MultiplayerChess.com. It's quite nice to be in an office with no co-workers or boss.




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